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What does Obama’s Catholic miscalculation reveal about us?

By February 20, 2012 7 Comments

It’s been over a week since the Obama administration blinked and came up with a way out of their self-inflicted fight with the Roman Catholic Church over mandatory birth control coverage.  The administration made a big mistake – they figured that since the great majority of Catholics don’t follow their church’s teaching on contraception (as high as 98% according to a survey cited on NPR), those same Catholics would stand up with the government against their own church. Bad idea. Somehow, the administration forgot that the best way to unite a fractured family is to attack it from the outside while at the same time not considering how united all American Catholics (and, indeed, all Americans) are on the issue of religious liberty.  After all, freedom of religion didn’t just slip into the Bill of Rights, it’s number one.  You think the ranking doesn’t mean anything?  Come on, you know number one is freedom of religion and speech.  You know that number two is the right to bear arms.  But what’s number three?  See what I mean?  I’ll pause while you Google it.

I’m humming the Jeopardy! theme, waiting for you.

Hope you feel better now remembering that soldiers can’t be forced into your home during a time of peace.  Don’t get too cozy. For a supposedly peace-loving nation we’re at war quite a bit.  Like right now.  But I digress . . .   

What I want to write about today isn’t the Bill of Rights or birth control as a political issue.  What fascinates me instead is the gap that I believe the administration initially stumbled over – the gap between what the church teaches on the one hand and the actual belief and behavior of most Catholics on the other. I’ve been wondering if there are similar situations in the RCA and CRC, wondering what gulfs exist between official church policy and the actual beliefs and behavior of the majority.

Can you think of examples of this?

Here’s one that pops into my head – the RCA Book of Church Order says: “The hymns used in public worship shall be in harmony with the Standards of the Reformed Church in America.” Really? Every time I sing “Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now,” I wonder what Guido de Bres might say to that.  Or, I remember what Jesus did say, that we did not choose him but he chose us.  Or how about that song that repeats “Yes Lord” over and over?  Isn’t the important thing that God has said “Yes” through Jesus and not the other way around? Even though I appreciate how the writers of the BCO have left some wiggle room by using the word “hymn” (not to mention their ironic use of the word “harmony”), the real theology of real people is often expressed in song.  No matter what our Calvinistic Standards say, many of us sing like Arminians every Sunday. 

What about the Standards themselves? I have a hunch the majority views the Canons of Dort like an eccentric relative in their family tree.  And why does it seem likely to me that the “super-Calvinists” who adore Dort and happily divide the world into the elect and reprobate are among those dead-set against the Belhar Confession?  Am I the only one who thinks “Standards of Unity” is an oxymoron?

Here’s something else I notice.  I think of the gap in the Roman Catholic Church as the gap between a sensible public and their paternalistic leaders.  I think of the gaps in the Reformed Churches as the gap between sensible leadership and a public swayed more by popular American culture than good theology.  But it has occurred to me that Roman Catholic leaders might see their problems exactly the way I see ours – that they believe they are holding true to their theological principles while culture has influenced the average person in the pew against them. What do you think? What gaps do you see between what we officially say and what we actually do?  How do you account for these gaps?





Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I see it as the inevitable gap and friction between the reality of the church according to its own ideal and the powerful reality of the national culture in which the church (every church, in every nation) must find itself. Which, by inference, suggests that we can never (and should never try) to develop a "Christian culture". Can't be done and shouldn't be done. Our working obedience is never realized and our sanctification is never substantial, but these are only and always declarative, i.e., "justified by grace through faith." Thus, the importance of discipline as a sign of the church, that is, the constant humble discipling of the church's own inner life.

    I think that your quick analysis of the Roman Catholic loyalty to what they do not carry out in private is acute and insightful.

  • Steve MVW says:

    Jeff, a bunch of random reactions: I've heard conjecture that Obama did not misstep, but indeed it was great "strategery" intended to out the rigid, anti-woman bias of GOP and Bishops (inspired by the Komen pullback in the Planted Parenthood debacle). And the Bishops/GOP took the bait and revealed their true colors. Who knows?
    I think Reformed folk can sing "Yes, Lord." My own least favorite line from a contemporary song is, "I'm so glad you're in my life…" It is really nifty that I–center the universe, ground of all truth that I am–now have the Almighty God in my life! Before I was conscious of God, there's no way God could ever be conscious of me. Maybe we could start of thread here of your least favorite contemporary Christian lyric.
    Finally, no "Super-Calvinist" am I, gleefully dividing the world between the elect and reprobate. But Dordt's bark is much worse than its bite. And there are some of us that can deal with Dordt and Belhar.

  • M. says:


    Your post highlights partially why I have decided I cannot join the CRC after trying to reconcile the reformed theology to my life.

    "On Earth as it is in Heaven" was the last straw for me really.

    Whenever I questioned Election and TULIP I received the answer that God was God and I was not…

    OK Fine… Neither was Calvin…

    But I also could not imagine praying for Calvins image of a Heaven with a pre-chosen "Golden Ticket" heaven while good people are said to deserve punishment for not being given faith by God.

    If we translated that to an earthly kingdom where only those with 7's in their social security numbers would receive an education. Everyone else would be out of luck. How many of us would consider that just? But we aren't talking about education. We are talking about eternal damnation of an eternal God Breathed Soul.

    If we are the imago dei then the mind of God dispersed in mankind has evolved politically since the 16th Century to accept that class structuralism, bigotry, slavery and other forms of social wedges including an arrogant assertion to special grace by individual groups can lead to hate and war and impede the healing power of Common Grace.

    When I pray "On Earth as it is in Heaven" I have to believe it.


  • Jeff Munroe says:

    For about two months I've been envious of my compatriots here getting comments from my former pastor Daniel Meeter. Finally he has smiled on me. To paraphrase someone else, now my joy is complete. Thanks, Daniel.

    Not sure I buy your argument about the administration's motives, Steve. Who doesn't know the Catholic Church is male-dominated? But I do like your song lyric idea. For the record, I don't mind singing either of the songs I referenced — I happily sing whatever hymn or worship song is in front of me and only later find myself reflecting on the meaning of the lyrics.

  • Nathan W says:

    I stopped visiting this blog after I noticed a trend of posts consisting of hasty generalizations and an obvious political slant that simultaneously (and contradictorily?) criticized religion and politics being bed fellows. But, I'm home sick and bored so I stopped by…

    Your point on the hymns is well put, but I think you give too much credit to the amount of thinking that is done in the pews about the actual lyrics. In the past when I've pointed out bad theology present in worship songs the usual reaction is a blank stare until I physically point it out in the song.

    Not everyone who favors Dort is opposed to Belhar–take myself as an example.

    And to brother (or sister) M who can't abide the fact that in Calvinist theology "good" people are suffering in hell I just would like to add no one is good. Your entire critique of Calvinism is based on a poor understanding of human nature. I think Paul says something about it in Romans somewhere…

  • Jason Lief says:

    I love the gap. I think we should embrace the gap. I prefer to call it the "wink." As we announce the ideals upon which we stand we give a little wink and a smile. The beauty of lived reality is that the gap exists in every area of life. What we're "supposed" to do and what we actually do is a beautiful dance of generosity and grace. This is not hypocricy – it's the recognition that life cannot be lived in the realm of lofty ideals. This is the gospel – maybe we should interpet the incarnation as the divine "wink and a smile"?

  • William Harris says:

    Call it a gap or a wink, but there is also something Lenten about this. Lent's focus on recovery through discipline speaks to the lack of integrity in our lives, corporately and individually. We're always saying two things. Or three. In this, the mix-up on contraception shadows our own mixed-up lives, the desire to do right mixed with the desire to establish ourselves a little better; likewise, there's leadership on one side, the pew wandering in its own way. Or perhaps it's like the sweets we put away Tuesday, the gooey music that's so much fun and can fill a mouth with joy, but we know it really isn't that good for us. Yet.


    So here comes Lent with its challenge to die, and in so doing to catch a glimpse of what it can mean to be a little more whole, be a little more integrated. I open the hymnbook, scan the latest addition to political outrage only to hear my heart's tug and know the gap opens wide in me, as well. What else can I say, but give me an open ear, soften my heart, help me to open this still-clenched hand.

    Heal this wounded soul.

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